By Tracy O’Neill
THE RUIN OF EVERYTHING
By Lara Stapleton
123 pp. Paloma Press. Paper, $18.
If love conquers all, in Stapleton’s second story collection it’s not clear then whether anyone wins much of anything from it. There is plenty of sex in this book, but little is erotic. Bringing someone to bed skews more toward self-medicating. The fantasy tends to begin and end with being someone worth desiring. Careening in tone from fairy tale to social satire to grim, confessional emails, these stories center on wounded devotees of intimacy. “The way I love people is to consume them,” one narrator muses. “I didn’t want him to know that I eat with love.” But carnal enterprise fails to compensate for the disappointments of broken homes, previous demoralizing romances, artistic failure and a sense of meager privilege. To the women who love too much, heterosexuality is, predictably, a prison.
Identities in this collection evolve and intersect in wandering plots. A character might be from Michigan by way of the Philippines, biracial by way of a mother’s romances, upwardly mobile by way of scholarship. Sometimes beneficiaries of a racialized sexual economy surprise themselves by pursuing women who are not, then revert to notionally simpler liaisons. An affair meant to alleviate the pain of asymmetrical affection does not. One Filipina woman wearies of her safe, white consolation prize of a boyfriend and his habit of “dumping his responsibilities on her, like a limp, drunk body she had to care for after the party.” By and large, however, identity is treated like a box to tick; Stapleton reduces desire to a game of winner-take-all, with little recognition of the complexities of sexual power enjoyed even by women on the margins.
The real pleasure of this book lies in Stapleton’s irrepressible approach to narrative structure. Long, loose chains of events culminate in volta-like swerves. Sometimes they work. The better of these endings refashion early meanderings in thrilling flashes. Though it is not altogether convincing when the narrator of the final story construes her love as “immense,” an “offering to everyone” and “the antidote to all,” what is is the desperation for love to exceed its miseries.
By Ye Chun
189 pp. Catapult. $26.
“You can’t find another sound with so many good meanings,” the narrator of the first story in Ye’s collection says of her daughter’s name. Xinxin, in Chinese, denotes “happy, flourishing, thriving,” after all. It is a homophone for “heart” and “new.” And a child, without fail, signifies those things to the mothers, aspiring mothers and motherly figures who populate “Hao.”
These characters meet quiet desperation with quiet durability. They grind. They survive, mostly on maternal love. They are Chinese in China or émigrés in America, and their moments of history are diffuse, ranging thousands of years. In one story, those grieving the children lost in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 imagine being lenient parents to their dead. The final narrative ends with the legendary inventor of Chinese characters reflecting on his impoverished mother, whose figure — no longer begging for food — is forever preserved in his logograms. Another woman clutches her children while hiding from white looters ransacking San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1877, then dares to look at the damage. The world is, across centuries, a cruel, narrow place. It is also, in this gentle collection, where grace turns up, as often as not in the silence of women.
Slow, somber and often elegant, “Hao” thematically foregrounds language. Rather than reproducing the trite ethos of language as power, Ye shows how words operate as weapons, comforts, memories and insufficient — if sometimes beautiful — representations of intent. “No,” a woman tells her stalker, though she suspects the word may change nothing. Despite, or perhaps because of, its futility, she believes her utterance to be a show of strength. A refusal can fail to do what it’s supposed to, and still be quite meant.
VARIATIONS ON THE BODY
By María Ospina
Translated by Heather Cleary
113 pp. Coffee House Press. Paper, $16.95.
Ospina’s debut collection opens not with a bang but a scratch: The protagonist of the first story faces the irritation of a shirt tag. The body troubles, you see. Welts appear. The heart becomes a defiant pump. Pregnancy happens, whether or not it is a vocational disqualification. Then, of course, there’s the dying thing.
For Ospina, somatic upsets express the psychic fallout of violent conflict in Colombia, where women wrestle with how to steer a life. For them, sensations of the body are often more legible than the psychic mechanisms of precariously contained desperation. Literally and figuratively, the characters do not always know how to scratch the itch. A woman consumed by flea bites complains: “I imagine I’m being bitten every 10 seconds and slap various parts of my body hard, hoping to squash one in the act. But I never know if it’s really them or not.” Reason, after all, is in short supply in a Bogotá where grieving characters must fight neighbors for “a piece of whatever body” is available in disaster rubble, for insurance money. Whether the narrative follows a FARC guerrillera or a bikini-waxed grandmother, much of the emotional inertia in the collection accrues in the hush surrounding normalized terror.
Cleary, a National Book Award nominee for her translation of Roque Larraquy’s “Comemadre,” preserves the muted suggestiveness of Ospina’s prose. When a woman corresponds with a priest about dolls, a hope for connection inching toward the grotesque suffuses their exchanges. Another story becomes sexually charged when a woman writes to a young girl she wishes to “save.” The author’s acuity does not make the stories equally propulsive, but this, perhaps, is to be expected in the shellshocked atmosphere of the collection. Trauma, Ospina knows, does not always attain the dramatic prestige of the bleeding battle wound. Sometimes it’s a mysterious tingle.
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